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How to learn contentment

Would you describe yourself as happy and content? Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, I will be – eventually. But not quite yet.”

When you’re single, you think, “If only I were married, I would be content. I’m so tired of being single. I want to be married.”

Then you get married, and you say, “We need kids. If we had children, I know I’d be content then.”

You have children, and they’re still living with you in their 50s. So think, “How can I get these children to move out?”

Then you say, “It’s all about retirement. I know that when I’m retired, I’ll be content.”

Then you retire, and think, “I miss work. I need something to do. I wish I could have my old job back.”

Contentment is always beyond your reach. “If only” is the river that separates you from the good life. If only this … If only that.

In his epistle to the Philippians, the apostle Paul gave us the secret to contentment. What’s interesting is that Paul was under house arrest when he wrote those words. He was a prisoner of Rome. He was facing an uncertain future. He didn’t know whether he would be acquitted or beheaded. Yet in his letter to the church at Philippi, he had a lot to say about joy, rejoicing, happiness and contentment.

How is that possible? The answer is found in a word Paul used again and again: mind. He used the word mind 10 times and think five times. Add to that his use of the word remember, and we find 16 references to the mind.

Paul found contentment because he took life as it came. He said, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (4:11–13 NLT).

We cannot control what comes our way in life. We can, however, control our reaction to it. We can control the way we think. We can control our attitude. We learn how to be content.

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Our emotions will fluctuate. Even when everything is going the way we hoped it would, we still can feel depressed. There’s no logic to it. So we don’t base contentment on the way that we feel; we base it on the way that we think.

Contentment comes from leaning on Christ, not ourselves. Notice that Paul said, “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” Paul realized that he needed God’s help. Earlier in Philippians he wrote, “For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better” (1:21 NLT).

Paul had experienced some hard times, including being stoned by a hostile crowd. In fact, he probably was killed, because we know that at some point, Paul had the unique experience of dying, going to heaven, and coming back again (see 2 Corinthians 12:2–4).

He experienced pleasure and health but also sickness and weakness. He had highs and lows. He was a hero to some and a villain to others. And Paul learned this: Contentment does not come because we’ve conquered our circumstances; it comes because we’ve learned to live with them.

I heard about a man who was very proud of his perfectly groomed lawn. It was flawless. But then a heavy crop of dandelions appeared seemingly out of nowhere. He tried everything he could to get rid of them but had no success. So he sent off an email to the school of agriculture at a local university, telling them of all the things he had done to get rid of the dandelions. He wanted to know what he should do next. He received this response: “We suggest you learn to love dandelions.”

In the same way, we’ll pray, “Lord, I want you to take this away. I want you to change it.” The Lord is saying, “I suggest you learn to love it.”

This unruly husband, Lord! I’ve tried everything.

God is saying, “Learn to love him.”

This wife won’t do what I want her to do!

God is saying, “Learn to love her.”

These kids were great until they got to the teen years. I don’t know what’s happening.

God is saying, “Learn to love them.”

Think about your life right now. Can you learn to love what you have instead of what you don’t have? Paul was under house arrest. Instead of having his freedom, instead of a mission field, he was surrounded by four walls. Yet he was content.

Don’t misunderstand. Paul wasn’t saying that we should necessarily be satisfied with our present spiritual condition. He also wrote in Philippians, “Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:13–14 NKJV).

In that sense we should not be satisfied with where we are. But having said that, we should find contentment in our relationship with God. But that isn’t our nature. Notice that Paul said, “I have learned how to be content.” Some things have to be learned.

Life gives us things we cannot control. Paul found his contentment in his relationship with God. Without Christ, we can’t do much. But all things can be done through Christ, who strengthens us.